A Policy Recommendation for The United Methodist Church: Standardized and Mandatory Pre-Marital Counseling Sessions for All Couples

Divorce in the church is happening at an alarming rate, causing empirically documented, fatally devastating harm to both the couple and, most importantly, their children. In several studies done throughout the 1980s, the rate of divorce was anywhere from 50%-67% in the United States.[1] Recent studies done in the 2000s all confirm that divorce had stayed the same: roughly half of all marriages will end in divorce.[2] The rates of divorce are high, but the problems which divorce causes are notoriously higher. One of the world’s most renowned marital researchers, John Gottman, writes, “Separation and divorce have strong negative consequences for the mental and physical health of spouses.”[3] In fact, the best predictor for dying or staying alive, all other factors controlled, is the stability of marriage![4] Divorce compromises immune functioning—making humans more susceptible to diseases and cancer;[5] it also effects deleteriously children, causing them to have depression, withdrawal, poor social competence, health problems, poor academic performance, amongst other issues.[6] Judith Wallerstein, a family researcher and founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition, has conducted research on more than six thousand children of divorce, summarizes the effects of divorce on children poignantly:

“We saw children who were very frightened. There were sleep disturbances. Children who had never been particularly aggressive in elementary school and in preschool were hitting other children. The nursery school teachers and the elementary school teachers are saying these kids are out of control, and the only change that occurred in their lives had been the divorce of their parents.”[7]

Wallerstein further notes how “children rarely vote for divorce.”[8] Why would they? The average amount of years it takes for the child to “get over” divorce is “about three and a half or four years.”[9] And yet: “[T]he major impact of divorce on the child is in adulthood, when the man-woman relationship moves center stage.”[10] And, finally, for the final ultimatum: for roughly 70%[11] of those couples who do get divorced, their kids are going to be the sad “Gottman statistics” cited above—they’ll be the poor performance college students, the ones having trouble in human relationships, etc. The problem with divorce should be obvious by now: it is not a clear-cut, black-and-white so-called “solution” to a long-standing “problem” (i.e., marriage). Divorce is, most of the time, not much of a solution at all. Recent studies suggest that roughly 50% of all divorces “occur in families that can be categorized as low-conflict.”[12] That is, many of these negative effects of divorce could have been avoided. If divorce is as bad as the empirical evidence suggests, how is the Methodist Church to go about reducing the incidence of divorce?

Currently, The Book of Discipline [2012] has this to say about marriage:

“To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of The United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.”[13]

These are all very vague guidelines.

Ethics and Worldviews: Onto a Tentative Solution

I propose that we implement a policy which is grounded in several presuppositions. First of all, I believe that Kantian ethics should be our “default” setting when it comes to day-to-day ethics. That is, I believe that most of our ethical decisions should be grounded in Kant’s categorical imperative.[14]

Second, I presuppose the existence of such categorical imperatives which are grounded in human reason and, possibly, God. However, I do not see God as a necessary axiom for the existence of a universal categorical imperative; it is possible to argue for universals apart from God (see Kant’s On a Supposed Right to Lie). Since the Christian Church at large has accepted (and continues to accept) the view that God had verbally[15] commanded humans to follow certain imperatives, it follows suit that my own policy would make use of Divine Command Theory ethics. In Malachi 2:16, for example, God states: “I hate divorce!”[16]

Third, given the fact that I favor deontological (Kantian) ethics, being one who sees duty as a compelling part of any ethical system, I believe that human beings, being inherently prone to committing both boring sins and atrocious crimes, must have relatively constructive and guiding laws by which we live by; laws which constrain and bind us; laws which punish us when we fail to fulfill our end of the bargain (e.g., punishment for failing to provide financial support for children bred). In sum, my view of human nature is, in some ways, constrained.

Fourth, and finally, I paradoxically embrace a modified utilitarian approach which coexists with Kantian ethics; that is, I see Kantian ethics as a default position which functions at large for the individual, whereas utilitarian ethics are taken up by society to implement laws and regulations which benefit the majority (a majority comprised of Kantian individuals). To put it bluntly, utilitarianism—being nothing but a reflection of a given culture wearing philosophical garb[17]—is to be grounded in and built upon a democratic society of individuals who live according to Kantian ethics. I am concerned about what benefits the majority if, and only if, the majority’s decisions have been made while grounded in a deontological approach. For example, a husband may be “forced” to stay in a low-conflict marriage from a deontological perspective (i.e., he is fulfilling a duty, a categorical imperative, a divine command, etc.) because empirical evidence suggests that, communally speaking, the children are affected by the individual’s actions. Hence a “modified utilitarian” approach.

Given the above presuppositions, several objections could be made to my approach. First, a strict consequentialist (Utilitarian) may ground his or her subjective (and relative[18]) “happiness” in, well, nothing other than “happiness” itself (in this case “happiness” being nothing empirically verifiable, being simply a subjective state). A wife could subjectively divorce her husband if he does not make her feel happy. If the action (in the realm of the ethical) leads to more or increased forms of happiness for either the wife (or even both) then divorce is commendable—if not necessary! Why be stuck in a dead-end marriage which, consequentially speaking, results in lower rates of happiness for the woman, man, or couple? Divorce is the answer. (Provided that such a divorce results in increased happiness for the couple.)

Second, an existentialist who is of a Nietzschean bent may very well object to the implementation of a policy that incorporates premarital counseling sessions for the sake of divorce prevention. “Why not divorce?” he or she may ask. In fact, “Why believe in some God or universal law regarding this at all?” Why can’t I just do as I please?!

            And, finally, a researcher may very well ask: “What if the wife is stuck in an abusive relationship with a man who abuses both her and her children?” Such questions are certainly worth their salt. If divorce is at an all-time high, if divorce is as horrible as the studies suggest (both for the couple and the children), if there may be evidence that suggests that premarital counseling helps prevent divorce, what are possible responses to this concrete issue?

Solutions, Research, and Critiques

The first possible solution is simply do nothing. In this scenario, we maintain our status quo and believe in its superiority and validity; that is, divorce is not really a problem to be solved—it is a reality to merely be experienced on your personal journey to success and happiness. We allow both the state and the Methodist Church to continue serving us vague and directionless guidelines for marrying couples. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not change the statistics nor the research: we have a divorce problem in this nation that needs to be quelled. In fact, I am not alone in seeing this as a problem: “90% of young Americans believe the divorce rate is too high and should be lowered [2001].”[19] If there is anything positive about this particular approach (i.e., maintaining the status quo) it is this: it allows room for less government and church intervention, while allowing much room for individual autonomy. In this case, the individual human being is seen not necessarily as being in relation to other human beings but in isolation to them; the individual wife’s happiness and sense of direction is grounded in nothing but self—“I can divorce this man because he is not satisfying me in bed as much as my boss.” The children, the husband, the family, the society—all of that—is left on the sidelines at the expense of what is now commonly called (in other countries) “Western individualism.” The underlying presupposition of individualism is that the individual in isolation to society is seen as a better arbiter of truth than the community; the individual knows best. This presupposes a humanistic “unconstrained” view of human nature; that is, the human individual has the capacity to reason, and to reason well indeed! I simply beg to differ.[20] The problem with individualism[21] and such unconstrained thinking is that it neglects the communal aspects of marriage. Marriage is more than love of self and love towards self: it is about the Other (i.e., the spouse) and the family, too. “Although some starry-eyed young adults may believe they are marrying only their spouse, they usually marry into an entire family with attendant interactions, relationships, and responsibilities that extend far beyond the spouse.”[22] While Kantian ethics accepts human reason as the chief arbiter of truth, DCT balances this out with its imperatives—such imperatives which may fall outside the realm of human reason. While you may think that divorce is good—maybe God is right: it’s not as good or as green on that other side.

The second possible solution is to continue the trend of cohabitation and see where it leads. Popular opinion has it that cohabitation allows couples to find out if they “fit” (sexually and psychologically) for each other. This is commonsensical: if we like living with each other, we’ll get married! In fact, three-fifths of all unmarried Americans believe that “living together prior to marriage will facilitate marital stability [2001].”[23] Where the tongue is, there the actions lie also. So we now have half of all Americans cohabiting before marriage.[24] The problem? This reasoning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Across the board—whether you are looking at research done in Sweden, Canada, or the United States—those who cohabit before marriage are less likely to stay married.[25] Moreover, cohabitation leads to “fairly high levels of depression.”[26] According to Pepper Schwartz, cohabitation is not a good idea for a number of reasons: (a) it is “less equitable and egalitarian than marriage”;[27] and (b) cohabitation does change the way a couple engages with one another, and those changes “don’t bode well for marriage.”[28] In other words, if you want to get married—and stay married—do not cohabit. Not only that, but cohabiters also experience more “domestic violence” than their married counterparts.[29] Finally, the research indicates that “the best predictor of nonmonagamy after marriage is how much premarital sex there has been before it.”[30] Which makes perfect sense, given the fact that the number of sexual partners is directly and proportionally “associated with an increase in the cohabitation rate…”[31] The more one cohabits, the more sexual partners one has. Jonathan Burnside conclusively notes that “the benefits of marriage, as opposed to cohabitation and lone parenting, are well-documented across a wide range of indices, including benefits to children and building social capital.”[32] The one positive thing about cohabitation which I have found? Well, those who cohabit have sex sooner than those who get married, probably.

The third possible option which I will consider here is an implementation of a policy which mandates the use of PREP for all couples seeking to be married within The United Methodist Church. The pastor would perform the wedding ceremony if, and only if, the requirements of the premarital sessions had been met. Moreover, the pastor, at the end of these sessions, would then be allowed to exercise his or her own best judgment to perform the ceremony or not.

The benefits of PREP have been well-documented. In general, premarital counseling decreases the likelihood of divorce. For example, research done on PREP shows that after counseling, Follow-up 1 revealed that 0% of the intervention group (i.e., the group that participated in PREP) dissolved their relationships, whereas 19% of the control group dissolved their relationships. A little later, at Follow-up 2, 5% of the intervention group dissolved their relationships, whereas 24% of the control group dissolved theirs.[33] Obviously, premarital is not some magical wand that one waves to annihilate or make extinct divorce; it does decrease the likelihood of it. In another study, one done in 1993, couples who participated in premarital counseling sessions were roughly 50% less likely to divorce than the control group![34] To date, there are no known negative effects of premarital counseling sessions. This is, in simple language, a win-win situation for all.

Several problems with my policy may exist, if approached from another perspective. First, what if the husband is abusive? Judith Wallerstein, despite documenting the evils of divorce, does not believe that taking away no-fault divorce or making divorce harder to obtain would change the game for the better. “Trapping people in bad marriages or making the exit very narrow, I think, is very foolish…”[35] In the end, even Wallerstein is uncertain about what, ultimately, we are to do—to divorce or not to divorce, is the question. On the flip side, Judge Helen E. Brown points out that “50 percent of the people don’t need to get divorced if they learn how to resolve conflict and communicate better. If they make a commitment and stick with it, it’s going to be better for them and better for their children.”[36] Underlying her statement is this notion of duty-based (deontological/Kantian) ethics: one must weather the storm—for there is hope on the other side.

Implementation of Policy

I recommend that we begin by presenting the latest research and statistics to the members of the Methodist Church. After these presentations, which would seek to educate as many church members as possible, I recommend we have church pastors and selected representatives vote for the implementation of mandatory premarital counseling (with my personal recommendation of PREP). This democratic vote would try to represent faithfully the will of the majority while recognizing the value of Kantian ethics and the seriousness of God’s commands to humanity.[37] The governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, said it best: “Since you marry 75 percent of the people in your churches or synagogues or mosques, require a premarital course which includes counseling, dispute resolution, arguing fairly, and other issues that are most important in marriage breakup.”[38] In fact, covenant marriages (a new form of marriage which requires premarital counseling and difficult divorce) is available in at least three states with “a large fraction of Americans wanting to make it more widely available [2002].”[39] I suggest that I—and now we—are not alone: there is solid evidence supporting the goodness of a two-parent home, the damage divorce causes, the value of premarital counseling, and the fact that a rising proportion of us want good marriages and counseling. The evidence is in. What will you do?

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Anderson, Katherine, Don Browning, and Brian Boyer. Marriage—Just a Piece of Paper? Religion, Marriage, and Family Series. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Burnside, Jonathan. God, Justice and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gottman, John Mordecai. What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 1994.

Thornton, Arland, William G. Axinn, and Yu Xie. Marriage and Cohabitation.

Edited by R. A. Easterlin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Schwartz, Pepper. Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000.

The United Methodist Church. “The Book of Discipline—¶ 340a. Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors.” The United Methodist Church, 2012. Accessed November 7, 2014. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/para-340-responsibilities-and-duties-of-elders-and-licensed-pastors.


[1] John Mordecai Gottman, What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes (Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 2.

[2] Arland Thornton, William G. Axinn, and Yu Xie, Marriage and Cohabitation, Population and Development, series ed., Richard A. Easterlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 57. While this statistic suggests that the divorce rate had stayed the same, in fact, this is merely an illusion. Less people are marrying, more and more are cohabiting. Those cohabitations which result in break-up (in marriage we would call this “divorce”) do not register and are not a part of the “divorce statistics.” This artificially creates, in turn, a divorce rate that appears to have stayed the same—which, in reality, has actually continued to rise…

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Judith Wallerstein, “What About the Children?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, eds. Katherine Anderson, Don Browning, and Brian Boyer, Religion, Marriage, and Family, series eds., Don S. Browning and John Wall (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 93.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid., 100.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Linda Waite, “Looking for Love,” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 168.

[12] William Galston, “Where Are We Going?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 327.

[13] “The Book of Discipline—¶ 340a: Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors,” The United Methodist Church, accessed November 7, 2014, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/para-340-responsibilities-and-duties-of-elders-and-licensed-pastors.

[14] “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Moreover, human beings should live according to the Kingdom of Ends.

[15] By “verbally” I mean that God had given us commands via a medium different than DNA or RNA. God gave us commands to follow which were passed on orally, in written form, or via (alleged) “divine revelation.” In this sense, God, by necessity, is handcuffed to a text (or some such medium of communication).

[16] There are numerous problems with the Hebrew Masoretic text—whether it is God who hates divorce or a man divorcing his wife in hate, divorce is not seen as something commendable. Moreover, the Bible has more to say on this subject (cf. Matt. 19:6; Mk 10:2-12; Lk 16:18; Rom 7:2-3, etc.).

[17] Utilitarianism has several problems with it. First, utilitarian ethics cannot really explain change. If a society in the 1800s banned divorce, a utilitarian ethicist would argue that divorce is “evil” (according to the society). However, the same society, two-hundred years later could allow and embrace divorce; they could use utilitarian ethics to argue for the implementation of no-fault divorce. That is, the majority first chose and banned divorce; then the same majority embraced and allowed divorce. In this case, “the majority” being most happy. How does a utilitarian ethicist explain such changes? If utilitarian ethical approaches “banned” divorce in a given culture and, later, they “embraced” divorce, is not “utilitarianism” really a meaningless term? A term that merely explains what makes subjective people “happy” at a given moment in society’s history (a society which is prone to fluidity and change—being, as I hold, influenced by other factors [such as Kantian ethics, DCT, the Bible, etc.]). But in this example, utilitarianism is really nothing but a mere reflection of the culture. Hence my accusation that it is “culture in philosophical garb.” The culture banned divorce; the culture embraced divorce. But what underlies the culture’s decisions? That’s where I say that Kantian ethics is to guide culture and society at an individual level. A philosopher that may help clarify this issue is Soren Kierkegaard. He, too, I would argue, would support such an idea. His own approach is deontological—but then he has this idea of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” In my own modified utilitarian approach (for society at large—not necessarily concerned here with the individual), the Kantian individuals which comprise society—would be “suspended” for the utilitarian, overall good of society at large. My position is more nuanced than both Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism…

[18] Not everything that is “subjective” is “relative.” A human being such as myself may exist in reality objectively, but I am constantly experienced and encountered by other human beings subjectively; that is, I am an objective object (an absolute) but I am not ever “absolutely” known by the Other.

[19] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 58.

[20] Those who have chosen their marriage partners in accordance with their own reason are also the ones divorcing them in accordance with their “divine” reason!

[21] Larry Bumpass, “Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 74.

[22] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 8.

[23] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 57.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] Ibid., 57-8. “[P]eople who lived together before they get married are significantly more likely to divorce later. It’s true in Canada. It’s true in Sweden. It’s true in the U.S. It’s true wherever we’ve looked” (Linda Waite, “Looking for Love,” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 165).

[26] Ibid., 164.

[27] Pepper Schwartz, Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000), 213. Italics original.

[28] Ibid., 210.

[29] Linda Waite, “Looking For Love,” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 165.

[30] Schwartz, Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong, 74.

[31] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 197.

[32] Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 341.

[33] Gottman, What Predicts Divorce?, 428.

[34] Ibid., 430.

[35] Judith Wallerstein, “What About the Children?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 104.

[36] Judge Helen E. Brown, “What About the Children?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 108.

[37] Moreover, my modified utilitarian approach would allow for a temporary teleological suspension of Kantian ethics (i.e., divorce would be permissible if certain criteria are met, such as abuse, abandonment of family, habitual adultery, etc.) in favor of this consequentialist (utilitarian) approach, which teleologically seeks to bring benefit to the majority (be it wife, husband, and/or children).

[38] Frank Keating, “Where Are We Going?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 338.

[39] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 58.

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